Fire

Veljko Paunovic calls U.S. Open Cup the Fire's priority ahead of quarterfinal

Veljko Paunovic calls U.S. Open Cup the Fire's priority ahead of quarterfinal

As the Chicago Fire continue to sit at the bottom of the Major League Soccer standings, the team’s run in the U.S. Open Cup takes more and more focus.

The Fire take on the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers at Toyota Park in a quarterfinal in the competition on Wednesday. Coach Veljko Paunovic talked about how important the U.S. Open Cup has become.

“This is our must-win game,” Paunovic said during a conference call with reporters on Monday. “We are truly motivated and very optimistic about this competition. It becomes our priority and this is how we are working.”

That statement certainly lines up with the lineup Paunovic played in the 3-1 loss at FC Dallas on Saturday. David Accam, Jonathan Campbell and Sean Johnson didn’t even travel for the game and Matt Polster was subbed off at halftime.

[MORE: Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez hints at potential summer moves]

The Fire are in the middle of a stretch that includes five matches in 15 days. The squad rotation was decided well in advance of the trip to Dallas.

“We shared the plan with all the players before this stretch of the game started, before even the game against Sporting Kansas City (on July 13),” Paunovic said. “Everyone knows how much they’re going to participate and what the plan is from the fitness standpoint. I think we have to manage the load. July is a very hard month for us.”

That includes the goalkeeper switch with Matt Lampson playing between the posts in an MLS match for the first time since the May 14 loss at New England. Paunovic said he told Johnson and Lampson of the plan before the Sporting KC match that Johnson started.

“We want Matt Lampson to play also in the Open Cup game on Wednesday so we believe that for him it was very important for him to have a game before that,” Paunovic said.

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With the U.S. Open Cup seemingly taking priority, at least ahead of the match at Dallas, does this mean Paunovic is giving up hope on making the playoffs? The Fire have 17 points with 16 matches remaining. Last season, the first year that six teams made the playoffs from each conference, the cut off to make the playoffs in the East was 49 points. Even if that drops to 45 points considering the East appears even weaker this season, that would require the Fire to average 1.75 points per match the rest of the way. That would be the third best record in MLS this season.

In other words, the Fire would have to go from the worst team in the league to one of the best starting now just to be on the bubble to make the playoffs. Even Paunovic admitted it would take something special.

“Listen we never give up,” Paunovic said. “We will play all our games to win and that’s what we are doing. We are trying our best of course… We don’t give up on playoffs this year. I actually believe in miracles. I’ve seen them happen in soccer many times to me and even against me.”

Chicago Fire permanently sign midfielder Aleksandar Katai

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USA TODAY

Chicago Fire permanently sign midfielder Aleksandar Katai

The Fire have secured the transfer of midfielder Aleksandar Katai from Deportivo Alavés of the Spanish La Liga, the team announced Wednesday afternoon.

This season’s breakout playmaker has been signed with Chicago through 2019, with a 2020 club option. Before the transfer, Katai was on loan from Alavés, which was set to expire after July.

The Serbian player has emerged as one of the most important pieces of the Fire’s offense this season. Since joining the club on Feb. 6, Katai has scored eight goals in 18 league matches, tying forward Nemanja Nikolić for the most on the team. Katai also has three assists in 2018.

The 27-year-old’s biggest game of the year came against New York City FC last month when he scored two goals to lead the Fire to 3-2 victory. His production this season in the MLS has been much more significant than it was in 23 matches with Alavés, where Katai only tallied three goals and four assists.

His transfer fee is unknown but, according to Sam Stejskal of MLSsoccer.com, he will be a “Targeted Allocation Money player” for the rest of this season and will not be a Designated Player until 2019. Whatever the official price was, acquiring Katai for a lengthier amount of time seemed like a must.

Throughout this season, the Fire were rumored to be in talks with legendary Spanish striker Fernando Torres. On Tuesday, he signed with Sagan Tosu, a Japanese club. The Fire signed Katai the next day, showing that the team was possibly waiting for Torres to leave the market.

Chicago will face the Philadelphia Union Wednesday night at Toyota Park, where Katai will look to continue his impressive season.

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof involved in car crash on Thursday morning

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USA TODAY

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof involved in car crash on Thursday morning

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof was involved in a car accident on his way to practice Thursday morning that sent him to the hospital with minor injuries.

According to authorities and the Secretary of State’s Office, a box truck crashed into the Dutch player’s 2013 Volkswagen and another vehicle in the 5900 block of South Harlem. Kappelhof’s vehicle rolled over and two people fled from the scene.

The driver ran on foot and the passenger moved into the driver’s seat before driving the truck onto the Stevenson Expressway after the crash, officials said. After the damaged vehicle broke down, police say the same passenger tried to jump into the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Both were taken into custody.

Team officials said Kappelhof was treated and released from the hospital without indicators of a concussion. The 27-year-old was reportedly seen at Toyota Park after the crash and did not have any serious injuries. The other driver who was hit by the box truck was also treated, police said.

This season in league play with the Fire, Kappelhof has three assists in 16 games. The international product was a 2017 MLS All-Star and the Defensive Player of the Year for the Fire last season. He was signed in 2016 and has made one MLS Cup Playoffs appearance.